Freedom’s Fortress – Escape to Freedom


Narrator: Most Americans have never heard
of Civil War Contraband Camps and so are unaware of the active role enslaved Africans played
in gaining their freedom. The Contraband story starts at Hampton Roads. In 1861 Virginia
had seceded from the Union, but the area around Fort Monroe was held by Union troops. White
Hamptonians left the town rather than live under military occupation. Many enslaved Africans
chose to stay behind. On May 25, the Confederate Army burned Hampton. That night, three enslaved
men fled by boat to Ft Monroe. The next morning General Benjamin Butler refused to return
them to their owners. Butler argued that since Virginia had left the Union, the Fugitive
Slave Act was void. Enslaved people were considered “property” in the South, so they could
be held as “contraband of war.” By July, over 900 freedom- seekers from the Tidewater
area sought sanctuary at Fort Monroe and the surrounding Grand Contraband Camp. With ingenuity
and determination, they began to build a new life at camp. They found paid work fishing
and oystering, as officers’ servants and worked for the Army strengthening fortifications.
Schools, illegal under slavery, were established by Mary Peake, a woman of color, General Butler
and northern missionaries. Then General John Wool replaced Butler as commander of the camp
and curtailed the contraband community’s autonomy. Wool ordered that all able- bodied
refugees had to work – but their wages would be withheld and put into a fund for food and
clothing. In fact, the Army Quartermaster pocketed the wages and sold the clothing and
rations on the black market. New refugees continued to pour in. The Fields family from
Hanover County, 100 miles away was typical: in 1863, Martha Ann Fields and her children
set out on foot for Fort Monroe. Traveling at night to evade Confederate soldiers, they
finally reached Union lines at the York River and joined thousands of other freedom seekers
boarding barges headed for Freedom’s Fortress.” By 1864, 20,000 refugees had joined the camps
surrounding the Fort, sometimes 1200 at a time. Union soldiers were unprepared to care
for such a huge influx of destitute people. Lacking housing, food and clothing, many died
of disease, exposure and starvation. Roving bands of union soldiers rampaged through the
settlements, looting and raping. By 1862 blacks could serve in the Union Army. Commanders
with quotas to fill raided the Contraband camps, forcing men to enlist. Conditions improved
somewhat after the Emancipation Proclamation. Now that the formerly enslaved were free,
the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops and directly recruited soldiers
for segregated units. During the war thousands of enslaved African Americans were displaced.
At war’s end no policies or laws were in place to protect their rights.
Abandoned and confiscated land was returned to white confederates. And people of color
were again uprooted. In Hampton, as elsewhere, newfound gains were lost. Still, over the
next decades, the self-determination underlying the first escape to Freedom’s Fortress re-
emerged, as African Americans worked tirelessly to rebuild their communities and continued
their quest for freedom and equality.

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